My experience of working with Zohra Sehgal ji in two films will remain with me till my last breath. She is a miracle woman; a legend beyond explanation. And look at her range! In Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (HDDCS, 1999) I put her in a Gujarati Ghagra-choli, while in Saawariya (2007), she wore a Catholic dress.
She can create her own universe for each character without going into too much background detail. I certainly hope to complete a hat-trick with her by doing one film. I suspect she will outlive us all.
There may have been a gap between our two films together, but she hadn’t aged one bit in all those years. At 94, when she did Saawariya, she was the same sprightly gamine with dancing eyes. Her sheer zest for life and understanding of the movie camera made all of us look like film students in front of her.
When she arrived for the film’s shoot, Ranbir Kapoor went to the airport to pick her up. She looked at him and said, “Do you know, I’ve worked opposite your great-grandfather, Prithviraj Kapoor, and your grandfather, Raj Kapoor. You’re the third generation of the Kapoor family that I’m working with. I don’t know how I missed out on working with Randhir and Rishi (Ranbir’s father).” She had even brought along pictures of Prithviraj saab and Raj saab. They were the two youngest people on the sets, and she’d insist on calling him Ranbir Raj.
I would feel old watching her energy on the sets. We’d all be dead tired by evening, but at 6 pm, she would announce, “Let’s all have a glass of wine before getting back to work.” She loved her role in Saawariya because for the first time, she got to play a Catholic character who wore Western clothes, crimson lipstick and wore her hair stylishly. There is a scene in Saawariya where she insists on singing an English song to Ranbir. That song was her own, from several years ago. She has an amazing memory. Not only did she remember her dialogues from both my films, she remembered the lines of all the other characters too.
When I picked her up from the airport the first time, she rattled off all her lines, and then those of the other characters. Then she warned me not to change even one line. On the sets, if anyone forgot their lines, guess who piped in with the correct ones? Zohraji’s exuberance is infectious. The power and the magnetism of her eyes are still with me. She had stated her career with Uday Shankar’s dance troupe, in his dance ballet, Kalpana. I worship him, so for me, she became part of a legacy that I revere.
She is temperamental in a positive way. While some actors throw their weight around to feel important, she rages when she sees incompetence, mediocrity or compromises on the sets. At 84, she was so strong that when in a scene in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, she had to playfully pull Salman and Aishwarya’s ears, their ears went red. They’d both whispered to me, asking if I could request her to go softer on them, but I didn’t have the guts to. No one can correct her; she is a free spirit.
-As told to Subhash K Jha